Late 2016 update
In March 2016, Sony introduced the PlayStation Vue -- a head on challenge to Sling TV, which had been the sole streaming TV subscription service up to that point. Though more expensive than Sling TV's $20 entry-level price, PlayStation Vue served up more channels and features including a full-function "cloud DVR," the ability to stream to multiple devices on the same account, and profiles for different family members.
Since then, Sony has dropped its pricing, and further beefed up the Vue offering, adding new channels such as HBO, Cinemax, NFL Network, and NFL RedZone, as well as support for Android TV devices. And it will soon come to web browsers, too, according to the company. The Vue's device support is much more limited, however, and there are many restrictions on mobile use, too: the DVR is inactive, for example, and certain channels aren't available. However, as of November 8, Sony has also dropped all Viacom channels, including Comedy Central, Spike and MTV.
At the same time, Sling has been fiddling with its own pricing and channel lineups. In April 2016, the company began offering an alternate multi-stream service, with some Fox channels but no ESPN, and the ABC broadcast channel in some markets for an extra $5 per month. Sling also added Comedy Central to the base package and made other Viacom channels available as $5 add-on packages. And, in June, Sling TV finally came to Apple TV. Still, though PlayStation Vue has the edge on Sling in a few critical categories -- superior interface, DVR capabilities, simultaneous viewing on multiple devices -- Sling remains the least expensive, most flexible offering.
But the landscape continues to evolve: The most recent addition is AT&T's new online TV service, DirecTV Now. Launched in November 2016, it features more than 100 channels at the very competitive introductory price of $35 per month, after which it increases to $60. Significantly, subscribers can add HBO for $5 per month -- a steal compared to the $15 the network charges for its standalone app, HBO Now. Customers that prepay for three months of DirecTV Now get an Apple TV, while those who prepay one month get an Amazon FireTV Stick.
And the evolution will continue. Next year, Hulu plans to launch a live-TV element to its Netflix-like library of on-demand TV shows and original series. And YouTube, Apple and Amazon are said to be working on similar efforts. Bottom line: The benefits and drawbacks of each service vary widely by region and device, and depend on what type of programming you want. But since none of these services have long-term contracts, you can freely jump from one to the other on the fly -- so there's no real penalty for experimenting.
Editors' note: The original review of Sony's PlayStation Vue, first published in March 2016, follows.
If Vue was announced by Apple instead of Sony, and called something like "iVue," people would be dancing madly on the lip of the volcano and declaring the end of cable television.
Apple has gone back and forth for years in an effort, now evidently stalled again, to offer an Internet-delivered TV service to compete against cable. Meanwhile, little old Sony has been serving up PlayStation Vue for the last year, offering just about everything Apple is rumored to be planning. And Vue just keeps getting better.
When the service first debuted, it ran second banana to Sling TV, the pioneering cord-cutter TV service that delivers a base package of 20-odd live TV channels, including ESPN, AMC and CNN, for $20 per month. Vue has always had fewer restrictions and more channels and features than Sling, including an innovative "cloud DVR," but at first it cost too much, was only available in a handful of US cities and only worked with PlayStation consoles.
Thanks to price drops, new channels and additional device support, as well as a nationwide rollout, Vue is now superior to Sling TV in most ways and accessible to a good chunk of the US population. Its new nationwide "Slim" packages start at $30 for 50-odd channels, including next-day video-on-demand of programming from ABC, Fox and NBC, with CBS "coming soon."
And you no longer need a PlayStation to use it. Vue is available on Amazon Fire TV devices, including the $35 Stick, as well as iPads, iPhones and Chromecast. Sony says more devices are coming soon. I for one don't expect Vue to appear on Apple TV, but a Roku or Android app is certainly possible.
Vue isn't for everyone. It still requires a broadband Internet connection, so your local cable company's "triple play" or similar bundle might be a better value. It's still missing a few key channels, including live local channels in most of the country, as well as PBS and some local sports. And it definitely needs more device support stat.
But if Vue makes financial sense in your area, Sony's service can be a great way to cut the cable cord without feeling any pain.
Disclosure: CBS, the owner of CNET, is a compensated content provider to PlayStation Vue and its main satellite and cable TV competitors.
Getting to know Vue
Since Internet TV services are still unfamiliar territory for a lot of people, here's a quick primer on Vue. An even shorter primer? Think of it as Netflix with live TV, complete with commercials (that you can skip).
It streams TV over the Internet. Vue requires a broadband Internet connection, and Sony recommends 10mbps or higher for the best experience, plus 5mbps for every additional stream.
It has most of the same live TV channels and on-demand shows as your cable provider, arranged in similar packages, for a monthly fee starting at $30. Vue is not a la carte TV; you can't choose individual channels. Instead it has three different packages, called Access, Core and Elite, with increasing numbers of channels for more money.
It's available nationwide in the US, but costs more (and offers live local channels) in seven major cities. If you live in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco or Miami, Vue starts at $40. That's because you can watch live versions of the local ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC stations. In other places across the country, shows from those networks are only available on-demand the next day on Vue, and you won't get stuff like local news.
Its DVR lets you "record" your shows to the cloud, watch them anytime, and skip commercials. You can easily set up shows to watch after they air live, and you can fast-forward, pause and rewind, just like regular hardware DVR from the cable company. Just like Netflix, these shows are stored in the cloud, not on your device.
You'll need a PlayStation 3 or 4 console, or an Amazon Fire TV, to use it. Instead of a cable box, Vue feeds your TV through a PlayStation console, or an Amazon Fire TV box or Amazon Fire TV stick. You can also watch on an iPad or iPhone or Chromecast connected to a TV, but you must also have a PlayStation or Fire TV to do so.
You can watch on up to five TVs simultaneously from one account. Unlike Sling TV, which is limited to just one stream, Vue lets you stream to more than one device at the same time. Currently the limit is one PS3 and one PS4 in the same house, with additional simultaneous streams using Fire TV or iOS devices, up to five total streams at once. That means your multi-TV household can all watch something different at once, provided you have a fast enough Internet connection.
Unlike cable, there's no equipment rental, contracts or other "hidden" monthly fees. Vue's monthly fee is a flat rate, and the service makes it easy to cancel and restart, or just try for a week for free to see if you like it. (Yes, there may be state or local sales tax.)
The channels: More than Sling, fewer than cable
The biggest question anyone has about a newfangled Internet TV service revolves around channel access. That's why I've prepared a big chart showing all of the channels on Vue and Sling TV, as well as a few (like PBS, CSPAN, NFL Red Zone and BBC America) that aren't available on either one yet, but can be found on typical cable services.
The simple takeaway is that Vue's basic package has a much better channel selection than Sling TV, but worse than many cable packages. And of course, you can pay more to get more channels.
Unlike Sling, Netflix or Hulu, however, Vue's packages cost different amounts depending on where you live in the US. For people in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco and Miami, Vue packages cost $10 per month more for the privilege of watching (and recording) live local channels; namely ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC.
It's pretty confusing, so let's use two big California cities as examples. The cheapest Vue package costs $40 in L.A., but $30 in San Diego. In L.A. it's called Access, while in San Diego it's called Access Slim (Sony tacks "Slim" onto its package names to indicate that local channels aren't available). And no, you can't buy the Access package in San Diego, or the cheaper Access Slim package in L.A. (a real bummer for people who are satisfied getting local channels via antenna).
In LA, you can watch network shows like "The Voice," "The Bachelor" or "Gotham" live, or DVR them, but in San Diego you have to wait 24 hours to watch them on-demand. CBS shows are coming on-demand to Vue's Slim cities "soon."
Still confused? Hopefully another chart will help:
PlayStation Vue package availability
|Pricing for New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco and Miami||Pricing for everywhere else in the United States||Local channel availability (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC)||Number of channels|
|Access Slim||Not available||$30/month||On-demand with 24-hour delay||55+|
|Core Slim||Not available||$35/month||On-demand with 24-hour delay||75+|
|Elite Slim||Not available||$45/month||On-demand with 24-hour delay||100+|
|Access||$40/month||Not available||Live, DVR and on-demand||60+|
|Core||$45/month||Not available||Live, DVR and on-demand||75+|
|Elite||$55/month||Not available||Live, DVR and on-demand||100+|
If you're still unsure what you'd pay with Vue, head over to Sony's website and input your zip code. Then come back here and finish reading this review! Trust me, it gets better.
Beyond local channels and regional sports networks, Vue's packages are the same in every city nationwide, and offer an impressive array of cable channels, including the Fox and NBC/Universal properties missing from Sling. The recent addition of Disney-owned channels to Vue, including ABC and ESPN, erased Sling's biggest programming advantage. A few Sling channels are still missing from Vue as well, including A&E, History and Lifetime, but Vue still maintains a huge advantage in channels over its cheaper rival.
Like other Internet TV services, Vue's Achilles heel is sports. It's missing MLB TV, NBA TV, the NFL Network and some regional sports channels (RSNs), for example. The more expensive Core package ($35 or $45) from Vue provides access to more sports, including some, but not all RSNs. In New York, for example, Vue has the YES Network (Yankees baseball, Nets basketball) but lacks MSG and SNY, the regional sports channels for other area professional teams, namely the Knicks, Rangers and Mets. For fans of certain teams, Vue is a nonstarter.
A reader told me Sony's website mistakenly indicated he would get access to a regional sports network that ended up not being part of the Core package, an issue that was also reported on Sony's forums in multiple regions. I notified Sony's rep and was told "there may be some confusion with the way the RSN logos are displayed in the PlayStation Vue informational section of our website and on PlayStation consoles." She added that the logos will be removed soon to reduce confusion. In the meantime the best way to determine which RSNs you'd get is to call customer service (877-883-7669).
You can add Showtime to Vue for $11 per month (or $9 for PlayStation Plus members), but there's no HBO option yet (Sling TV has HBO for $15 per month). A couple of other add-on channels are available too, including EPIX and Machinima, Sony's gaming-centric network.
The experience: Netflix with live TV plus DVR
Watching TV with Vue is mostly the same as watching via a cable or satellite TV, especially if you're used to a full-service cable system that includes a whole-home DVR. But you need good Internet service. If your real speed doesn't at least match Sony's 10Mbps recommendation during prime time hours -- or if it comes with bandwidth caps at home -- don't bother.
So how is it different from cable and rival Sling TV? Here's what I discovered.